The Alphabet Workers Union at Google may be a small group in terms of strength, but it’s formation marks one giant leap for the working class in the technology industry worldwide. Here’s why.
Do you work in the technology industry? Chances are you are not part of a union, especially if you are in India. Have you heard that Google has a workers’ union now? Wondering ‘so what’? Well, that’s good news for you.
Let’s explain why.
“We are Alphabet Workers who stand united,” the Alphabet Workers Union informed the world of tech and work this week. The Union has over 200 members and “it is growing”, according to the collective. The members include workers from many companies Alphabet owns. The group includes tech as well as non-tech workers in the US and Canada.
Union is good
Labour experts think the arrival of the Alphabet union can disrupt the tech scene in myriad ways, mostly in favour of the workers. First off, it helps make companies more accountable in their actions. Earlier, workers had raised their voice inside Google when it was revealed that the company was planning to introduce a censored search engine for China, in tune with the Chinese government’s demands. Workers had protested when Google was planning to renew a contract with the Pentagon which involved the use of extreme surveillance using drone footage.
Such victories are no small feat in an industry that has the potential to make or break the future of the planet. The biggest five tech companies are together worth $7.3 trillion. Tech companies sit on huge piles of cash. For one, Apple sits on a cash pile of $44.7 billion (in the bank). It holds another $42 billion in marketable securities that can be converted into cash in a jiffy. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, the tech giants continued to make huge profits. Labour organisations and some market watchers strongly believe one of the most effective ways to make the companies ‘behave’ is to have strong unions in their backyard.
But that’s not easy
Even with the new developments, unionisation is at an all-time low, not only in America but across the globe as well. A report says in 2020 only one in 10 workers is a union member in the US. Obviously, the ratio is negligible in the tech industry. That said, experts such as Wendy Liu, whose book Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism created controversy for its proactive take on the tech industry, detailing its abusive power play, feel labour unions can make a big difference in the tech sector. In his insightful essay, Code Red: Organizing the tech sector, writer Alex Press quotes Markus, a system administrator at a social media company. “We’re inching toward a dystopia, and it’s being created by people who see themselves as liberal. And we need to organize, or else venture capitalists and CEOs are going to destroy our society.”
This may sound a tad exaggerated, but recent experiences from the tech industry, from the Cambridge Analytica Scandal involving Facebook and the inhuman employment practices of Apple’s contract labour factories in China and India, suggest that empowering the tech workforce can actually help bring in accountability and an internal auditing mechanism to the tech sector.
No small feat
If you’ve been following trade union news, you’d know by now how difficult it is to form a workers’ union in the powerful tech industry. Most tech companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple are not very friendly towards the idea of collective bargaining and unionisation. Many a time, the companies have tried to scuttle attempts towards organising tech workers. Historically, the tech industry has been a hard nut to crack for unions.
In the 1960s 1970s, when workers tried to form unions at Intel, the campaign was seen as a “death threat” to the company, note labour historians. In 1997, activist and former Silicon Valley worker David Bacon billed the Valley as unorganizable. Joining a union meant getting fired, he said. Collective bargaining was a strict no-no. In 2018, a startup, Lanetix, infamously fired more than a dozen of its employees when they tried to form a union.
In November 2019, Google famously fired four of its workers as they tried to form a union. The issue was widely reported and had drawn ire from rights activists and union bodies across the globe. American government agencies later found out that the Google move was unlawful. The US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) called out the tech giant for its anti-union stance and charged that the search-to-surveillance behemoth illegally monitored and questioned the staff about their union activity, even though Google said it was forced to act as the workers had breached data security rules. The fired workers, popularly known as the “Thanksgiving Four” had however said they were shown the door for voicing their opinion against some of Google’s policies.
Google and many of its Silicon Valley friends are known for their distaste for workers union. That said, none of these companies ever went on record openly about their aversion to trade unions in tech. As its workers started voicing dissent overtly and covertly, online and offline, Google last year hired a consulting firm for advice on employee management. The appointment of IRI Consultants, which is known for its anti-union activities (One of the claimed achievements of the firm was its “union vulnerability assessments”), had drawn widespread criticism in and beyond America.
And there’s more…
During the same period, reports surfaced suggesting Google had installed a tricky tool (a browser extension) on the web browsers its workers were using. The New York Times had reported that the add-on tracked and alerted the management of internal events that would take more than “10 meeting rooms or 100 participants”. Such activities have time and again exposed the chinks in the seemingly employee-friendly management policies of tech companies such as Google. Traditionally, these companies have been known for their ‘transparent’ work culture and colourful incentives.
There were several reports that revealed how tech companies including Google, Facebook and Apple used to ask their workers to keep away from making public statements on the company’s behaviour and limit their social interactions to non-office affairs. Most workers followed the rules begrudgingly. The absence of a strong trade union in the sector made them vulnerable, observed rights groups. Tech workers across the globe shared similar woes.
Organising to gain
Still, interestingly, there’s been a trend in the tech industry towards unionisation. Even in early January 2020, there were signs of active unionisation in America’s tech industry, which employs more than 12 million people. About 40 workers at the scooter startup Spin, based in San Francisco, joined the union Teamsters Local 665. Another group of workers from Chicago-based Instacart organized to be part of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1546.
But a crucial shift in the game came in February 2020 when workers at the tech company Kickstarter voted to form a union. The workers, after marathon discussions and debates internally, decided to enrol themselves with the Office and Professional Employees International Union. The Union has a member pool of over 100,000 workers. Media called it a historic win for unionisation efforts at tech companies. Clearly, Google workers were influenced by the movement their comrades at Kickstarter had kicked off.
Here’s an interesting podcast series of the formation and evolution of the Kickstarter Union.
Not many organisations or worker collectives are serving the needs of tech workers in the world, particularly in the US. The Tech Workers Coalition, a labour rights body that is, interestingly, a supporter of President Donald Trump, is an emerging voice in the tech industry. It actively promotes unionisation in the industry. It’s websites chronicle union activities taking place in the tech industry. Another body, Silicon Valley Rising, tries to organise low-wage workers in the tech industry. Perhaps, the most significant presence in the scene is the Communication Workers of America. It recently launched an impressive campaign called CODE, aiming to organise workers in the tech, game and digital industries.
But studies have suggested that tech workers, most of whom are paid “handsomely”, in the US or (especially) India, sulk away when the issue of unionisation crops up. Why union, is a common refrain. It seems the Alphabet workers union has some answers to them. In its FAQ, the workers remind their comrades that “historically unions have fought for issues from an 8-hour workday, to equal rights at work, to smaller classroom sizes. Inside of Alphabet, we hope to create a democratic process for workers to wield decision-making power; promote social, economic, and environmental justice; and end the unfair disparities…”
For sure, IT workers across the globe are listening in.